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Kelsi Singer: do research as an undergraduate, and embrace the rewards of grad school

May 9, 2011

Kelsi SingerKelsi Singer is a Ph.D. candidate in Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Washington University in St. Louis where she works with advisor Bill McKinnon. Kelsi studies the geology and geophysics of icy satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, including Europa, Ganymede, and Iapetus.  She is the recipient of a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF) and the Washington University Olin Fellowship.  Most recently, Kelsi was awarded the Stephen E. Dwornik Award for Best Graduate Poster Presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) for her abstract titled “Pits, Spots, Uplifts, and Small Chaos Regions on Europa: Evidence for Diapiric Upwelling from Morphology and Morphometry.”

Kat Gardner-Vandy, a graduate student at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, interviewed Kelsi for the 51 Women in Planetary Science series via email.

Congratulations on winning the 2010 Dwornik Award for Outstanding Graduate Student Posters at LPSC!  Tell me about the abstract you presented in your poster.    

Thanks!  I was very honored to receive a Dwornik because I know there are a lot of good posters!  My poster was about Europa’s topography.  Unfortunately, we have very limited data to work with on Europa, especially when it comes to topography.  I wanted to characterize the shapes of features on the surface that are created by endogenic upwellings.  I was able to use photoclinometric topography data created by Paul Schenk to do so.  For example, pit-like features on Europa have a range of depths, but the deepest are ~500 m.  Using a simple isostacy model, this pit depth predicts a minimum ice shell thickness of ~4-9 km (for a reasonable range of compositions of the ice shell and ocean below).  I am finishing up a paper on all of the features I mapped, so more on that soon!

Tell me about your life before grad school.  How did you first get interested in planetary science?  Did you always know you’d go to college and major in a scientific field? 

I have always been interested in a wide variety of subjects.  I feel like a lot of little kids like the subjects of astronomy and paleontology (planets and dinosaurs are cool for some reason!), and I was one of those kids.  When I went to college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I was set on studying archaeoastronomy, so I majored in astronomy and anthropology.  Towards the end of my undergrad career I discovered astrobiology, and decided it was even more interesting, so I chose to go in the planetary science direction for my research.  I was lucky as an undergraduate to work with several of the faculty at CU: Steve Mojzsis agreed to help me with my honors thesis, and I studied blueberries on Mars with Brian Hynek for a summer.  I consider icy satellites to have the best chance of harboring life in our solar system, and well, ice geology is just neat, so I wanted to try to study that in graduate school.

Doing research as an undergraduate is a great idea!  How did you get connected with Steve Mojzsis and Brian Hynek? 

I came about both projects rather circuitously.  I studied abroad in Australia at Macquarie University where the Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA) was hosted at the time (it is now at the University of New South Wales).  At Macquarie they had “internships” which are really more like what we call independent studies in the states.  You could apply to have 3 credits of an internship.  Almost everyone else was in business, but I applied to do research with the ACA.  I think I just e-mailed the director and asked if they had anything I could work on, and they did.  When I returned to CU, Steve Mojzsis, (with whom I had taken a course on astrobiology) agreed to continue to mentor me on the project as my honor’s thesis (studying rocks called cyclic rhythmites as a paleorecord of the length of day).

Someone sent me to talk to Brian Hynek because he got his Ph.D. at Wash U., which is where I was considering going to grad school.  Somehow in the course of the conversation he asked me if I was looking for a project for the summer, and I said yes!

So I guess the moral of the story is that it doesn’t hurt to ask.  Also, many universities have a director of undergraduate studies (or otherwise) who may have a list of professors who are looking for undergraduates to work for them.  If you are a good student and are willing to work hard, you will be an attractive candidate to work for someone.  But also be honest with yourself and the professor about how much time you have to work during a given semester.  For example, maybe you have a lot of time one semester but not as much another semester.  It is best to have an idea of that ahead of time, and make this clear with the person you are working with so as to not disappoint if either one of you is expecting a different situation.  Like graduate school, you can even talk to other undergrads who have worked for this person to get an idea of what it is like.

There are also many great internships and REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) programs that you can officially apply for.  Professors in your department should know about these. The only problem is that they are sometimes hard to get if you don’t have prior research experience, so this is where doing something at your home institution can help you get that head start.  We should consider putting up a list of these on the WIPS blog too, but check the Undergraduate Students section for some examples.

Tell me about grad school.  How did you decide on going to WashU? 

I always consider planetary science to be a subject that hangs out somewhere between astronomy and geology, and I wanted to improve the geology side of my education since I had little of it in undergrad.  I went from an “Astrophysical and Planetary” department to an “Earth and Planetary” one.  I got exactly what I asked for.  It was tough to start grad school in a newish field, but a lot of us end up doing that.

I think when starting grad school you just have to know that you will spend a lot of time/effort learning all the new jargon and absorbing the general ideas in the field.  You have to find the best technique for you, but I find that it helps if your “general” studies are motivated by your actual research.  Say you are studying tectonics on an icy moon; that is a perfect time to read about tectonics in general, and you will be more actively engaged in learning it while you are thinking about how it applies to your research.

What has been the most challenging aspect of graduate school?  Alternatively, what has been the best thing about graduate school? 

The most challenging thing about graduate school is probably that there are constantly new challenges…but there are also constantly new rewards.  For those undergraduates out there: in undergrad you work on an assignment, turn it in, and get a grade, and usually this all happens within a week or two.  In graduate school you have to wait a lot longer to “turn things in” like a paper to a journal, and the gratification is likewise farther in between.  It might take you months or years to get your code to work, but when it does, it is a really good day!

What has been the most effective way for you to maintain balance in your life? 

I admit that I still struggle with this.  Mostly I just try to be as focused as possible during the day while I am working and know that I have some “free time” scheduled for later.  I think trying as many techniques as you come across until you find some that work for you is as good a strategy as any.  Some people like to use a timer and force themselves to work for a certain amount of time before taking a break, or some people need to go to a library to get away from distractions.  I certainly agree with others on this site who have said that getting away from e-mail is good, perhaps checking only at specified times.  There are also some helpful books out there on subjects like writing and/or general “getting things done” that might be helpful.

The Association for Women in Science has a new set of workshops out on this subject, but they are calling it “Work-Life Satisfaction,” which I think is a better title because it sounds less like something you have to achieve (as is the case with “balance”) and more about what works for you.  We are about to start a series of these in St. Louis so I hope that will give me some more insight.

Any idea where you’d like to be in 5 or 10 years?

I like research and teaching, so we will see where I end up.  Wherever I am, I hope I am working on a mission to Europa!

Thank you, Kelsi!

Kelsi is being featured here as one of 51 Women in Planetary Science, a series of interviews with successful women scientists on career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success. Questions or suggestions for future interviews (we encourage both senior and junior scientists to volunteer!) can be sent to us directly or to our email list, which all planetary science women can join!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2011 4:52 am

    I am also interested to specialize and do research on icy satellites. What other universities aside from Washington University in St. Louis that have researches on icy worlds in our solar system? thanks! 🙂


  2. May 9, 2011 10:19 am

    Great interview, Kelsi!

  3. May 9, 2011 10:10 am

    Thanks Kat!

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